One year. That's how long the Supreme Court of Canada gave the federal government last December to come up with new laws governing sex work.
The court struck down three laws -- prohibitions on keeping brothels, living on the avails of prostitution, and communicating in public with clients -- that violated the right of sex workers to implement measures vital to their safety and security.
"They do not merely impose conditions on how prostitutes operate. They go a critical step further, by imposing dangerous conditions on prostitution; they prevent people engaged in a risky -- but legal-- activity from taking steps to protect themselves," wrote Justice McLachlin.
Like the failed Nordic model, this made-in-Canada approach criminalizes the clients of sex workers, while ostensibly trying to convince sex workers to stop commodifying their bodies in a hopeless attempt to end the sex trade.
But the Canadian model goes much further, blatantly disregarding the Supreme Court decision as well as studies showing the policing of purchasers puts the same pressures on sex workers, impeding them from screening clients, negotiating transactions, working in safe areas, and accessing police protections.
The Canadian Model
Under the new model, sex workers are still caught in the cross-hairs of law enforcement. Not only are their clients criminalized, but the new bill includes a broad provision prohibiting communication for the purpose of selling sex "in a public space, or in any place open to public view, that is or is next to a place where persons under the age of 18 can reasonably be expected to be present." What is the limit to where children and adolescents can "reasonably be expected"?
If the net cast by that provision seems wide, brace yourself for another law of wondrous scope. The bill prohibits advertisements for the sale of sexual services and gives courts the authority "to order the seizure of materials containing such advertisements and their removal from the Internet." How will this law be used? Will independent print publications be jeopardized? How will Canada govern the internet?
And then there's the reintroduction of the "living on the avails" offence, disguised so thinly it's insulting. The Supreme Court said "living on the avails" captured too many people, including those whose services could help protect sex workers -- such as drivers, managers, bodyguards -- as well as accountants and receptionists. In defiance of the court, the government has outlawed "material benefit" from sex work.
"To protect human dignity"
In the preamble to the bill, the government espouses "human dignity" and "equality" and agonizes over "social harm," stating that it "wishes to encourage those who engage in prostitution to report incidents of violence and to leave prostitution."
None of these concerns will be addressed through the Canadian model.
The inherent social harms and violations of dignity and equality in the Canadian model make me wonder whether the government seeks to end exploitation or simply force others to live the devastating effects of its legislated moralism.
If the aim were to encourage sex workers to report incidents of violence, would we not see increased support for sex workers' and anti-violence groups? Would we not see improved and mandatory police training and oversight related to issues of violence, power, and sex work? Would we not see the decriminalization of the sex trade?
If the aim were to encourage people to exit sex work, would we not see harm reduction practices in place across the country? Would we not see the implementation of a plan to provide secure housing for all? Would we not see a comprehensive campaign to abolish poverty rather than sex work?
The Canadian model has invited danger, death, and future court challenges over the constitutionality of its provisions.
Listening to the evidence opens the way to a made-in-Canada approach that ensures dignity, not sacrifices it.
Prostitution is legal in Germany, and brothels are registered businesses that do not require a separate license. In the state of Bavaria, it is mandatory to use condoms. A German prostitute's self-portrait in a brothel, 1999.
In the Netherlands, prostitution is legal, as are brothels. Because of the size of the industry, the government has attempted to scale it back in recent years, and a law has been proposed to ban women under the age of 21 from the business. Red Light Bar in Amsterdam (Photo courtesy of Flickr/Ben Sutherland)
Thanks to the Prostitution Reform Act 2003, prostitution, owning a brothel and street solicitation are legal in New Zealand, though coercion remains illegal. The law still causes controversy today, with certain parties attempting to overturn it. (Photo courtesy of Flickr/PhillipC)
Nevada is the only place in the United States where prostitution is legal, in the form of brothels (though prostitution outside these businesses is illegal). The brothels are located in isolated rural areas, and employees work as independent contractors, therefore not receiving any health or insurance benefits. (Photo courtesy of Flickr/Bludgeoner86)
In Argentina, prostitution is legal, but operating a business like a brothel based on the industry is illegal. (Photo courtesy of Flickr/quimpg)
Like Argentina, prostitution is legal in France, but associated industries are not. In addition, paying for sex with someone under the age of 18 is illegal. (Photo courtesy of Flickr/idreamofdaylight)
In Singapore, prostitution is legal, but activities like brothels and organized prostitution is not. Workers in brothels carry health cards and receive regular check-ups. (Photo courtesy of Flickr/Arian Zwegers)
In Japan, prostitution is technically illegal, but many have found legal loopholes that allow for certain acts -- specifically, anything outside of coitus. (Photo courtesy of Flickr/loiclemeur)
Prostitution is legal in Greece, and workers have personal licenses, as well as health cards that are checked often. Brothels, however, are not legal, and have caused many demonstrations within the country. (Photo courtesy of Flickr/DoctorWho)
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